As school districts puzzle over what sort of rules and prohibitions should be included in board policies addressing teachers’ use of social networking sites, one state’s legislature has stepped into the breach. In Senate Bill 54, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, Missouri effectively became the first state to ban exclusive communications between teachers and students on nonwork-related websites.
The language of Missouri Senate Bill 54, effective on August 28, 2011, states:
By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.
This is an interesting choice of language that, while not naming any particular social networking website, such as Facebook, would seem to prohibit teachers "friending" students on such sites, since there could be communications between teacher and student that are not accessible to parents. But what exactly is "exclusive access"? If the parent checks the student’s Facebook account and has access to all communications made from the site, is that still considered "exclusive access"?
Note also that there is a prohibition on such relationships with "former" students. One might well ask, for what period of time does this prohibition last? Surely adults who have gone on to graduate from college and want to "friend" their 7th grade science teachers should not have to worry that this will get the teacher in trouble with the law, right? Suppose your aunt is a school employee in the same school district where you go to school and you "friend" her on Facebook – will that run afoul of the district’s policy concerning "employee-student communications"?
Another interesting topic is the law’s mandate that schools must write policies governing "nonverbal personal communication" as well. Although one assumes that this was intended as a reference to written "chat room" and message communications available through social networking sites, it does not appear to be limited to those types of communications as written. Will school districts start writing policies prohibiting certain types of gestures exchanged in person between teachers and students? Facial expessions? Body language? Let’s hope sanity prevails, otherwise, we predict a First Amendment challenge on the horizon.